Gregor Townsend: I still love the Six Nations but know this could be my last
Gregor Townsend still remembers his first visit to Murrayfield vividly. It may have been a bitterly chilly afternoon on February 7, 1981, but the seven-year-old could feel only the butterflies fluttering in his stomach.
Following an opening-round defeat by France at the Parc des Princes, Scotland were seeking their first victory in the old Five Nations Championship that season with the visit of Wales to Edinburgh, a game everyone was looking forward to. The city was awash with blue and red, and tickets were as rare as hen’s teeth.
Of more immediate concern to Townsend’s father Peter, though, was ensuring that his son was not caught in the crush of the crowd.
“I remember being on my dad’s shoulders because there was a big squash to get into the stadium,” Townsend recalls. “My dad said he thought there were over 100,000 fans at Murrayfield that day and he was worried we might get crushed. But it was quite exciting for a seven-year old going to a Five Nations game. The schoolboy enclosures were great in those days, you were so close to the pitch side.”
It proved to be a momentous day as Scotland won 15-6, but more importantly for Townsend, it marked the beginning of a lifelong love affair with the championship.
Twelve years later, he found himself in the centre of the action, making his Scotland debut – the first of 82 caps – in the 1993 Five Nations game against England at Twickenham, having come on as a replacement for Craig Chalmers, who had a broken arm.
“I spent a long time on the sidelines warming up because it took a while before Craig left the field,” he recalls. “I was looking at the big stands at Twickenham and the confidence started to drain from me. My first 10 minutes were poor – I think I missed two tackles in that period. But after that I settled down and thought to myself, ‘This is where I want to be’.”
Townsend, now 49, recalls those milestones with the same enthusiasm as you might imagine his seven-year-old self would have done: and it provides a telling insight into his mindset going into this season’s Six Nations.
This will be his sixth championship as Scotland head coach but he is having to come to terms with the fact that it could be his last.
His contract expires at the end of the World Cup in France in October, and he has been told by the Scottish Rugby Union that talks about a potential extension will not take place until after this season’s Six Nations, suggesting the next two months could make or break any hopes of being in charge at next season’s championship.
His win ratio stands at just over 54 per cent from 61 Tests in charge, a better record than any of his predecessors; over the past three seasons, Scotland have the third-best record in the Six Nations, behind France and Ireland, the top two sides in the world rankings.
‘I have always felt privileged to be in this role’
Yet rather than see the prospect of his six-year tenure being judged on the next five results as a snub, the uncertainty seems to have given Townsend a new sense of freedom. If this is to be his last Six Nations in charge of Scotland, he is determined to go out with a bang.
“I have always felt privileged to be in this role,” he says. “Even when something negative has happened – the team has lost or there are other issues to deal with – there is something about the Six Nations where you have to pinch yourself.
“I remember flying to Italy last year and we had lost to Wales and France and our defence coach Steve Tandy was looking a bit glum.
“I said to him, ‘Look, we are going to be at the Olympic Stadium in Rome in two days’ time’. Where else in your life and your rugby coaching career can you say we are going to be at the Olympic Stadium in Rome – experiences made more special by the crowds in the Six Nations?
“It is the tournament that we were brought up watching as youngsters and is such a special tournament that it brings you back to how lucky we are – even when things are going badly.
“We had sell-outs at Murrayfield in November and a World Cup later this year and even now I can’t believe how lucky I am to still be involved in a sport I loved as a player and previously loved as a supporter.
“So obviously, it is there that this could be the last chance, but if it is, well, let’s go and enjoy it.”
‘This is the best tournament in the world’
It is a mindset that could have implications for Scotland’s opponents, starting with England at Twickenham on Saturday.
Since Townsend’s first season in charge in 2018, Scotland have remarkably lifted the Calcutta Cup on four out of the past five occasions.
“I suppose the longer I’m in this job, I have become more relaxed and level-headed and taken time to enjoy things around the games,” he says. “Being at the Six Nations launch last week took a day off my preparation time with the squad, but it gives you a buzz, too. You are down in London with the Scotland captain thinking, ‘This is the best tournament in the world’.
“And it is the best tournament in the world and has been for quite a while. But now it is also the best quality.
“When have the No 1 and No 2 teams in the world ever been European teams? Never. It’s always been either New Zealand, Australia or South Africa in the top two. Now, Ireland and France are the top two. England are in the top five and we are seventh. That is something special. We have got the best tournament for supporters and now we have the best tournament for playing ability.
“For years the southern hemisphere used to improve because they played against each other and those were the three best teams in the world. Now we’re playing against each other and getting better playing against stronger opposition.”
What is certain is that Townsend genuinely believes the best is yet to come from Scotland under his charge. He says his previously troubled relationship with Finn Russell, his star player, is back in a good place. The performances last autumn, including the narrow defeat by New Zealand, demonstrated that his side were not only playing an exciting brand of rugby but that the bond between the team and the supporters is as strong as he can remember.
“Look, I understand – and I have seen it in other sports like football – when you are in a job for a longer period, and I have been in this job for six years, some people are going to say, ‘We would be better off with someone else’,” he says. “I understand that, but I do feel there’s a lot more to come from this group. Absolutely. I’ve seen how the group is evolving – with individuals getting better because of their greater experience at Test level and working with them and getting our game out there more frequently.
“But what makes me privileged and proud, too, is the number of sell-outs we have had and that the connection we now have between our supporters and players is amazing.”
A connection he has never lost since that chilly afternoon at Murrayfield 42 years ago.